Hundreds of higher education leaders, prominent donors and alumni, University administrators, and faculty and staff packed into Sanders Theatre Thursday evening for an invitation-only Arts Prelude on the eve of Harvard President Claudine Gay’s inauguration.
“We come together from artistic disciplines, schools, backgrounds, and communities to celebrate this moment,” announced Felipe M. Albors ’25 just minutes after Gay entered the theater to a standing ovation and thunderous applause. Throughout the night, they would again rise to their feet in applause between selections of Haitian compas, ballet, lyric poetry, Dai-inspired dance, and taekwondo.
The night’s opening performance, Haitian song “Ayiti Cheri” (Dear Haiti), featured an arrangement and solo from director of jazz ensembles and senior lecturer Yosvany Terry.
“My father, who hails from the country of Haiti, used to play and sing this song for my siblings and I when we were growing up,” said LyLena D. Estabine ’24, who arranged the piece. “This version also includes my words — and the Haitian spirit of courage.”
Gay, the daughter of Haitian immigrants, has frequently spoken on her heritage, including in remarks following the announcement of her selection as president last December.
Madison E. Valley ’25, a singer who performed in “Ayiti Cheri” and two other performances throughout the night, said it felt momentous to kick off the inauguration festivities for the University’s first Black president. “It's such a historical moment,” Valley said. “As a Black woman, it's really important for me to be there as much as I can for this moment in history.”
In the second performance of the night, violinist Enoch Li ’26 took the stage for a solo performance of Aleksey Igudesman’s “Funk the String.” The cross-genre piece, arranged to draw forth music like an electric guitar from the violin, saw the crowd erupt in applause and rise to their feet as Li’s playing came to a crescendo.
As the crowd settled back into Sanders’ pews, three Harvard Ballet Company dancers took to the stage for solo pieces choreographed by Adrienne L. Chan ’25.
The spotlight on student composers continued as trumpetist Toussaint J. Miller ’25, violist Peirce B. Ellis ’25, cellist Eugene Ye ’25, pianist Lucas T. Gazianis ’24, and percussionist Raghav Mehrotra ’26 (below) performed “All Sing” alongside student poets Joi A.M. Gonzales ’25, Zia Pollis, Lana J. Reeves ’23, and Mia A. Word ’24.
The piece was introduced by professor Tracy K. Smith ’94, who described it as “a poem that contemplates the behavior of time.”
“We can feel ourselves living in this present moment,” Smith said, “while also feeling profoundly accompanied by lives from times that have come before.”
An usher and student watch the performances off stage.
To Valley and fellow student performer Zoe A.J. Nagasawa ’25, the exclusivity of the event stuck out. “I was like, ‘wow, this event is not publicized to even anyone in Harvard College,’” Valley said. “So I was like, ‘this must be a very private event.’ And then I assumed it would be a bunch of donors.”
Donors, University leaders, and guests smile in the orchestra section of Sanders theater.
Between acts, staff prepare the stage for the next performance.
More than a dozen students in the Asian American Dance Troupe performed a traditional dance inspired by the Dai people of Yunnan.
“It tells a story of strength, empowerment, and energy,” Tia A.A. KwanBock ’25 said in a reflection introducing the performance. “It evokes a sense of awe in the power of community, and the beauty of the world around us.”
KwanBock added that the title of the dance, “陶醉啦 [Drunk with Happiness],” captures the spirit of that awe. Chuckles rippled through the crowd as she offered the translation.
But the Prelude’s next act was no laughing matter as the Harvard Taekwondo Demonstration Team took to the stage in a choreographed tussle that left the Sanders stage ablur with bass-boosted beats, crescent kicks, and broken boards.
Davóne J. Tines ’09 and members of the Parker Quartet then offered a soulful rendition of “Lift Ev’ry Voice.”
Attendees next moved from Tines’ larger-than-life voice to a larger-than-life instrument. Professor of the practice Claire Chase took to the stage with a contrabass flute in a trio performance of “Fast is the Century” that filled the theater with Chase’s drawn-out breaths and a baritone rumble.
The Kuumba Singers of Harvard College then performed “I Live,” a musical reflection on the University’s “Harvard and the Legacy of Slavery Report” written and composed by Estabine.
The composition would honor the legacies of “many Black women and men who have passed through these halls, many of whom could have gone for so long unmourned,” Estabine said.
“You will hear their names, and then as the song continues, you will hear the names of my contemporaries and many of my friends,” she added.
As Estabine neared the end of her performance, all but the Kuumba’s sopranos fell silent. Before a hushed audience, Estabine added one more name to the list: “Claudine.”
Valley, also a member of the Kuumba Singers, remembered the moment. “Audible sighs and gasps,” Valley said. “It felt very powerful.”
The lights shifted to a shade of pink as the Harvard Expressions Dance Company marched on stage.
“Those Barbies are doctors. And those Barbies are pilots,” announced the music track. “And that Barbie is Harvard University’s 30th president.”
In the audience, Gay split into a wide smile.
At the end of the show, four soloists — including Gabrielle G. Medina ’26 and Emma Rogers ’25, above — and select instrumentalists rounded out the Prelude with a performance of “It Starts Here.”
“The arts are not a pastime. They are not a hobby,” said Diane M. Paulus ’88, artistic director of the American Repertory Theater. “They are critical to how our hearts beat, and to how we live our lives fully together.”
At the song’s conclusion, Gay was the first in the audience to rise to her feet in applause. The applause crescendoed when she joined the performers on stage.
“I'm not going to ruin the magic by actually talking,” Gay said to laughter from the crowd. “Let’s go across the way and have some dessert and connect.”